New Astronauts, But No News from VP Pence

New Astronauts, But No News from VP Pence

Vice President Mike Pence attended a NASA event at Johnson Space Center (JSC) today introducing the 12 new astronaut candidates NASA selected from a pool of approximately 18,300 applicants.  His remarks evoked patriotic images of American leadership in space, but provided no news about the reestablishment of a White House National Space Council, the nomination of a NASA Administrator, or detaiis of what the Trump Administration plans for NASA.

Pence joined Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot and JSC Director Ellen Ochoa at the event, along with Sen. Ted Cruz, Rep. Lamar Smith and Rep. Brian Babin.  Cruz, Smith and Babin are all members of the Texas congressional delegation.  Cruz chairs the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation space subcommittee.  Smith chairs the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee and Babin chairs its space subcommittee (he also represents the congressional district that includes JSC).   Texas Governor Greg Abbott also was there along with other local Texas officials.

The spotlight was on the new astronaut candidates — they will become astronauts, available for assignment to missions, after two years of training — but Pence’s participation raised expectations of an announcement of some sort at the national level.   Pence said in March during the Oval Office signing ceremony for the NASA Transition Authorization Act that President Trump would reactivate the White House National Space Council “in very short order” and he (Pence) would chair it.  Two months later, the space policy community continues to wait.   Today, Pence said only that it would happen “soon.” He said nothing about a NASA Administrator nominee.

Pence spoke in general terms about American leadership in space and promised that the Trump Administration would provide the resources for NASA “to push the boundaries of human knowledge and advance American leadership to the boundless frontiers of space.”   America “will lead in space once again and the world will marvel.”   The video of Pence’s speech is posted on the White House YouTube channel.

Vice President Mike Pence (center) with NASA’s 12 new astronaut candidates, Johnson Space Center, TX, June 7, 2017.  Photo credit:  NASA

The Trump Administration’s FY2018 budget request is an almost 3 percent cut from FY2017, however.  The request is $19.092 billion not only for FY2018, but each year through FY2022 with no adjustment even for inflation.  Proposed funding for the systems needed to send humans beyond low Earth orbit — the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion — is less than what Congress appropriated for FY2017 even though the programs are still on the upslope of their development funding curves.

No bold statements about reaching Mars at any particular point in time were made.  In fact, Pence told the 12 NASA astronaut newcomers that they “may” return to the Moon or travel to Mars, not that they “will.”  Even NASA’s press release omitted any mention of specific destinations beyond low Earth orbit.  After two years of training the astronaut candidates could be assigned “to any of a variety of missions” including research on the International Space Station, flying on the SpaceX or Boeing commercial crew vehicles, or “departing for deep space missions on NASA’s new Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System rocket.”  The Obama Administration’s goal was to send humans to orbit Mars in the 2030s.

Advocates of restoring the lunar surface to U.S. human exploration plans nevertheless might be cheered by Pence’s mention of that possibility.  NASA currently has no plans to return humans to the surface of the Moon, only to lunar orbit as a steppingstone to Mars, although it hopes that it might be able to join international and commercial partners that have their own lunar surface plans.

Commercial space enthusiasts also were probably pleased by Pence’s assertion that with “increased collaboration with commercial space industries we can seize opportunities that will benefit” the country for years to come.

The day really belonged to the new astronaut candidates and their aspirations, not budget realities or policy arguments. 

NASA’s 2017 class of astronaut candidates.  Photo credit:  NASA

  • Lt. Kayla Barron, U.S Navy, 29, submarine warfare officer, flag aide to the superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy
  • Zena Cardman, 29, National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow working on doctorate at the Pennsylvania State University, marine sciences
  • Lt. Col. Raja Chari, U.S. Air Force, 39, commander, 461st Flight Test Squadron, director F-35 Integrated Test Force, Edwards AFB, CA
  • Lt. Cmdr. Matthew Dominick, U.S. Navy, 35, department head, Strike Fighter Squadron 115, USS Ronald Reagan
  • Bob Hines, 42, NASA research pilot, Johnson Space Center
  • Warren “Woody” Hoburg, 31, assistant professor of aeronautics and astronautics, MIT
  • Lt. Jonny Kim, U.S. Navy, 33, resident physician in emergency medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital
  • Robb Kulin, 33, leads the Launch Chief Engineering Group, SpaceX
  • Maj. Jasmin Moghbeli, U.S. Marine Corps, 33, H-1 helicopter test pilot, quality assurance and avionics officer for Marine Operational Test and Evaluation Squadron 1, Yuma, AZ
  • Loral O’Hara, 34, research engineer, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Woods Hole, Massachusetts
  • Maj. Francisco “Frank” Rubio, U.S. Army, 41, surgeon, 3rd Battalion, Army 10th Special Forces Group, Fort Carson, CO
  • Jessica Watkins, 29, postdoctoral fellow, California Institute of Technology where she collaborates on the Mars Science Laboratory/Curiosity rover

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